Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception tells a dark and creepy tale and does so while giving PlayStation 4 and Vita users a dramatic visual novel/strategy RPG they can be proud of. It begins in a strange way, with Japanese voices counting you down before you are awakened in a tent with a young before finding yourself in a panic. You’re outside in the snow with only a hospital gown as coverage and an unsettling heartbeat keeping you company. You wander through the snow-covered trees only to find a giant mantis-like creature and without a second thought, leap off a cliffside.
It chases you and fall into a dank area under the ground that gives way. In theory, you have a brief respite from the creature, but in reality, forging forward into the dark abyss is your only sanctuary. You’re faced with either a sure-fire death at its hands or the unknown before it strikes. As it prepares to devour you, the insect itself is killed by a giant amorphous monster that melts the insect in its innards. A face is formed by the mass before a grenade is set off and you’re safe — blinded temporarily by the blast, but safe. Your newfound ally has saved your life, but no questions are answered immediately.
It’s a gripping start to an emotional journey, which has one of the most thrilling opening montage videos since Chrono Cross. It’s stirring and gets your mind racing for an epic adventure. A bit of drama and light comedy ensue as your rescuer Kuon finds clothes for you and exposits about what’s gone on. The creature she saved you from can’t die — but you’re at least safe for now as she will watch after and care for you. Our poor protagonist has no name or memories, but wants to craft a new identity, so he’s crushed when she tells him that she must name him as his guardian. Haku finds his name boring, but doesn’t put up much of a fight beyond some light passive-aggressive behavior. Your leave the tent and hop on an ostrich, which he finds as absurd as anyone playing would. A pack of animals comes to attack, and now we’ve got a battle on our hands. Haku runs in and tries to attack as much as possible – but doesn’t know the rule of SRPGs and thus only one of his half-dozen actually does damage. This amusing bit of meta-humor got a chuckle and is one of the best self-aware gags in gaming.
The core battle system is grid-based, and unlike Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, it’s more of an overhead setup – but the core action is very similar. You’ll pick a roster member, move them into position, and then slice away in front, to the side, or behind your enemies. The usual rules apply, so attacking from behind whenever possible is smart as long as it doesn’t put you in a tough spot. If attacking there means you’re suddenly surrounded, then you’ve taken a gamble that doing more damage to one enemy is worth incurring the wrath of several and possibly losing a party member.
There’s a surprisingly high amount of freedom in how you choose to play Mask of Deception. If you’re new to the series and want to absorb yourself in the lore, you can go through everything scene by seen if you want. Those who have seen the anime the game’s adventure is based on may want to pick and choose scenes, or you can simply choose to have the game auto-scroll through things to speed up the pace. Anime fans just looking for a new way to enjoy the story may wish that they could skip all the dialogue and just get to the combat though — which isn’t possible.
The game definitely leans towards the visual novel genre, with the strategy RPG elements coming into play during crucial moments. Those coming into it expecting more of an SRPG will be disappointed, but those looking for a visual novel with a tough of SPRG will be happy. This approach to things won’t work for everyone, but for a niche game like that, it’s not a huge issue. As it is, this setup works perfectly as a gateway game for those who haven’t really gotten into SRPGs before.
It has just enough of the core mechanics with things like elemental affinity and the importance of positioning, but you don’t need to worry about nearly as many things in-game as you would for an FFT-style game. There isn’t a set job system, although each party member does still fit a certain role that they’re best at. You generally don’t need to worry much about being at an advantage or disadvantage based on environmental height and there are far fewer moving parts. You just need to play things carefully, but you can still take risks and not worry about every minute detail in a battle.
Utawarerumono looks fantastic during the visual novel portions. The art is crisp and beautiful and is perfectly in keeping with the anime. Everything is on-par with how it looks there, so things are consistent and it keeps this from looking like a budget title. The SRPG portions look solid, but everything does retain the game’s Vita-level graphics. It’s not bad-looking by any stretch, but the textures are a bit muddy and lack depth. For a game on both devices, it looks great for a Vita game, but sub-par for a PS4 game. Animation-wise, attacks look good, but aren’t going to dazzle anyone. Fortunately, a game like this doesn’t need to blow minds visually, but those expecting a visually-stunning game in every way will be disappointed.
Musically, Utawarerumono is outstanding and uses the same music from the anime to great effect. It’s a surprisingly exciting soundtrack with a lot of life and pep to it. For a fairly slow-paced slice of life-style anime, it’s surprising to see so much life in the soundtrack, but it’s great to listen to. The all-Japanese voice work is good and everyone seems to fit their roles nicely, with everyone having passion in their performance. The subtitled voice work is good too, with everything fitting in perfectly timinig-wise and there aren’t any instances of lines coming in before or after the vocal performance does.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a good visual novel that blends that genre in fairly seamlessly with strategy RPGs. It’s far more of a visual novel than an SRPG, but when the SRPG elements come in, they’re well-done. It plays well, but its slower pace isn’t going to be for everyone and being unable to skip things dos make this tougher to get through if you’ve already watched the anime and just want to experience the SRPG portions. It looks fine on both the PS4 and PS Vita, but the core graphics are from Vita, so anyone looking for a PS4-level game will be a bit disappointed due to iffy textures. The soundtrack is excellent and the all-Japanese voice work is full of life and passion.